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Renowned Marine Biologist Carl Safina on the BP Oil Spill's Ecological Impact on the Gulf Coast and Worldwide

StoryMay 27, 2010
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Carl Safina

founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. He is author of many books about marine ecology and the ocean, including Song for the Blue Ocean.

As we continue our discussion on the BP oil spill, we turn to its long-term ecological impact. Carl Safina, the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute, warns the ecological fallout from the spill may be felt across much of the world. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As we continue our discussion on the BP oil spill, we turn now to look at the long-term ecological impact of the spill. Our next guest testified before Congress last week and warned the fallout from the spill may be felt across much of the world. Joining us here in New York is Carl Safina, the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. He’s author of many books about marine ecology and the ocean, including Song for the Blue Ocean.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CARL SAFINA: Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What message did you bring to Congress?

CARL SAFINA: Well, that this is not just a regional disaster, although it certainly is, but that the Gulf of Mexico is a tremendous engine of life and also a tremendous concentration zone, where animals from the whole open Atlantic Ocean funnel into the Gulf for breeding and millions of animals cross the Gulf and concentrate there on their northward migration and then fan out to populate much of North America and the Canadian Arctic, the East Coast, the Canadian Maritimes. So it’s a real hotspot, and it’s a terrible place to foul.


CARL SAFINA: The bluefin tuna that occupy most of the North Atlantic Ocean have two separate breeding populations. One breeds in the Mediterranean. The other breeds in the Gulf. So all the tuna that populate the East Coast, the Canadian Maritimes, the Gulfstream, even that go as far as the North Sea, many of those are from the western population and breed only in the Gulf of Mexico. This is their breeding season. They’ve just about finished now. And their eggs and larvae are drifting around in a toxic soup of oil and dispersant.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the dispersant Corexit.

CARL SAFINA: Well, the dispersant is a toxic pollutant that has been applied in the volume of millions of gallons and I think has greatly exacerbated the situation. I think the whole idea of using a dispersant is wrong, and I think it’s part of the whole pattern of BP trying to cover up and hide the body. They don’t want us to see how much oil, so they’ve taken this oil that was concentrated at the surface and dissolved it. But when you dissolve it, it’s still there, and it actually gets more toxic, because instead of being in big blobs, it’s now dissolved and can get across the gills, get into the mouths of animals. The water below the floating oil was water. Now it’s this toxic soup. So I think that in this whole pattern of BP trying to not let people know what’s going on, the idea of disperse the oil is a way of just hiding the body. But it actually makes the oil more toxic, and it adds this incredible amount of toxic pollutant in the dispersant itself.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the potential you were talking about, that this is the season when so much of the marine life and the bird life is creating their young, what is the effect on the birds, on those birds that are about to hatch or maybe are already in the process of hatching?

CARL SAFINA: Yeah, well, not only do you have birds there that are breeding, like the pelicans and some of the gulls and some of the terns, those birds will probably have a completely catastrophic breeding season, because it’s not just birds on the beach or birds in their nest. Their parents make a living diving into water. There’s no way around that. You can put booms that are twenty-feet high. They’re going to fly out to feed. And when I was there, we could see on the Chandeleur Islands quite a few of the terns were already lightly oiled, but they will just get progressively more and more oiled. And no amount of protecting the area where the nests are is going to change the fact that the parents are going to have a tremendous amount of trouble. And many of them will just get killed.

But also, there were sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, black belly plovers and a dozen other species that don’t stay there. They’re moving, and they’re migrating through. They come — they winter as far south as southern South America. They nest across the Canadian tundra and in the High Arctic. They’re some of the longest-distance migrants in the world. They cannot do that unless their fathers are working. And if their feathers are sticking together, they’re not going to be able to make it. They don’t have the energy to get to where they’re going to go. So they’re going to be dropping out along the way. The other thing is you have peregine falcons that are coming across from the Yucatan on their way to breeding grounds in the Arctic — excuse me — and as far away as Greenland. They will be selectively picking off these birds that are compromised. So they will be getting higher doses of oil. So this is just a horrible place to have something like this happening, because it’s such a concentration point for animals that move.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the question of bombing the actual — where the leak is coming from? Some say BP doesn’t want to do it, because then they would have to rebuild if they would ever get to offshore drill again. But what effect would that have?

CARL SAFINA: Oh, well, I’m not a — you know, I’m not a drilling technologist, and I don’t know if it would work. But actually, bombing part of the sea floor right there, I think, would have no real ecological effect other than the noise, which would affect marine mammals like dolphins and whales. But, you know, one or two blasts, I think, if it shut the oil off, would probably have been worth trying. But I don’t know if that would work.

AMY GOODMAN: Who do you think should be in charge of this operation, this cleanup operation?

CARL SAFINA: Well, BP had a lease to drill. They did not have a lease to pollute the Gulf of Mexico. They did not have a lease to blow oil into the environment. They did not have a lease to disperse the oil and try to hide the body. They don’t have a lease to clean up. They don’t have a lease to make the fishermen sick. They don’t have a lease to tell the United States, "We’ll keep using a dispersant that’s banned in Europe, even though you’re telling us to stop using it." They should have been shoved out of the way on day two. And there should have been a war council of all the other oil companies that know how to drill to focus on stopping the oil from coming out of the hole. And then BP’s responsibility — they are responsible, but they obviously don’t know what to do, and they can’t do it, and they’re not doing it. Their responsibility should be what they’re good at: pay money. Pay money to the United States. They’re on our property. They’re in our water. They’re making our people sick. They’re destroying our wildlife. Pay money and have the United States take over.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This whole issue of drilling in areas so deep that if there is an accident you cannot really get there to fix it, what is it — you know, to me, it’s almost like Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. It’s like you never — you were guaranteeing people that it would never happen, but once it happens once, you realize the potential catastrophe that you are creating through this process. What is your sense of the future of ocean drilling, in terms of what this has told the rest of the people of the United States and the world?

CARL SAFINA: Right, well, there have been other blowouts, and there have been major oil spills. It’s different than Chernobyl because we know it happens. It happens. It’s happened before. It will happen again. And it’s happening right now. So, you know, and obviously they didn’t have any backup plan. It’s as if having poked 30,000 holes into the sea floor of the Gulf of Mexico and have 5,000 rigs operating, it never occurred to them to say, "Oh, what if oil starts coming out of one of those holes, like it has in other places at other times?" They were completely unprepared. They don’t have the equipment. They don’t have booms that can work in open water. And what the obvious take-home message is, we don’t know how to do this. We can poke the hole. We don’t know how to deal with some things that we know happen, because they’ve happened. But people have not developed the technology or warehoused the tools or created booms that work in ocean swell conditions or any of that stuff. We’re trying to wring the last drops out of a depleting resource. And this really needs to be the pivotal moment where we say oil is declining, we need a national energy policy that looks past oil. You know, BP, at one time they said that their name meant "beyond petroleum." Now it’s "beyond pathetic." But we really need to get past oil.

AMY GOODMAN: What about "beyond prosecution"? Are they? And should they be held criminally liable?

CARL SAFINA: Of course they’re criminally responsible. They were trying to hurry up. When you have an argument on a rig about how fast to go and what to do, you don’t tell people, "Just hurry it up." I mean, this is absolutely criminal. And I think that — you know, we’re still asking, "Oh, can we go in? Can we use respirators?" This is insane.

AMY GOODMAN: The Atlantis, deepwater offshore drilling site, has that been shut down, which dwarfs the Horizon Deepwater?

CARL SAFINA: Actually, I don’t know if that’s still going on or has been shut down.

AMY GOODMAN: Has all offshore drilling been shut down? No?

CARL SAFINA: No, not at all. And in fact, unfortunately, the Obama administration, I think, blew it on the high ground here. You know, there was Sarah Palin, "drill, baby, drill," right? So we don’t want that; we elect Obama. And then what happens is we get "drill, baby, drill." That’s what we got. We got a stepped-up effort to eliminate the ban on offshore drilling that was, what, a couple of generations old. And now they’re stuck with that, because, of course, nobody wants to actually do the smart thing and say, "Oh, you know what? We made a mistake," because then, oh, they’ve lost face. So, oh, we can’t lose face. The obvious right thing is the drilling ban was the right thing to do. The drilling ban is the right thing to do. We don’t know how to take care of these problems. We need to stop it. We need to make this a pivotal moment and have a national energy policy for the first time that gets beyond this and phases out fossil fuels, which kill people, make people sick and detroy the environment.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much for being with us, Carl Safina, founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute. He has written a number of books, including Song for the Blue Ocean.

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